Promising Young Woman (2020)

Emerald Fennell | 1hr 48min

Emerald Fennell’s steady hand over comedy, drama, thriller, and romantic conventions makes for a brilliantly adventurous screenplay in Promising Young Woman, as she pulls off wildly swinging tonal and genre shifts with poise and self-assured control. In a reflection of the competing identities of our leading woman, Cassie, these disparate elements constantly appear to be on the brink of derailing the entire film, and yet the film spectacularly lands twist after twist in an angry, candy-coloured balancing act.

Carey Mulligan fits perfectly in with Fennell’s narrative rollercoaster as Cassie, displaying an ability to turn a scene on its head with a single, well-timed line. As the coffee shop waitress and part-time con artist pursues vengeance against those who bury their guilt beneath mountains of excuses, and simultaneously tries to work her way back into a lighter world that she has been sceptical of for years, an aggrieved sensitivity begins to emerging from beneath her cool, sardonic exterior. When her conflicting priorities finally become too much to bear, her indignant rage bursts forth in an interaction with a rude driver, smashing their windshield while Fennell spins the camera around her in an impassioned, isolating whirlwind of vengeance. When the car finally speeds away, we meet her at the dead centre of the image in this moment of bitter triumph, the strings swelling as a train passes directly behind her. Without uttering a single line, we recognise the emotional toll that her quest has taken – even the most perfect acts of retribution do little to settle the disturbed anger of the avenger.

Even when Cassie appears vulnerable, she remains centre-frame, in perfect control of the situation.

This symmetrical, centred framing becomes a recurring device for Fennell, giving Cassie the sort of authority that lets her dominate both her victims’ attention and our own. Some of these shots place circular objects just over or around her head like halos, such as in her meeting with her old schoolmate, Madison, where a sole, red lamp sits directly above her crown. In these compositions, Fennell paints her out as some sort of avenging angel on an angry, righteous quest, and indeed the final song of the film, “Angel of the Morning”, brings that motif to a satisfying close. When there are lapses in these perfectly aligned shots, there are similarly lapses in her power, with Fennell gradually shifting Mulligan just off-centre to disorientate us in this narrative that we have been led to believe she possesses total control over.

The one red light fixture in this restaurant framing Cassie as an Angel of Vengeance on a righteous mission for justice.
Even more halos in the imagery, sometimes saint-like, sometimes demonic.

As Cassie’s structured plan unfolds in bright pink tally marks, we are privy to a huge range of reactions from her victims being confronted with their past transgressions. Though the details of the sickening injustice which was enacted upon Cassie’s friend, Nina, remain hazy for a good while, it is clear that they all took some part in perpetuating it, and that it has turned Cassie into this untrusting, angry woman we know today.

Such details aren’t all that necessary though, as it is just in the way Cassie speaks about Nina that we come to know this fully-formed character whose invisible presence hangs heavy over everyone else’s lives. We see her in the way Cassie grieves, not just for the loss of a friend, but the loss of a woman with something to contribute to the world. She touchingly appears with a full personality in the memories Cassie shares with Mrs Fisher, reminiscing how she forced a boy who stole her mother’s vase to bring it back and apologise. And most tragically, we come to know the hollow, “squeezed out” person that Nina eventually became, who Cassie was forced to watch disintegrate into a name tossed around as a joke. This underlying darkness persists even through the lighter moments of Promising Young Woman, and yet Fennell never falters in weaving such harsh depictions of trauma around gentle nostalgia and dark humour to create this moving, thrilling, and brilliantly incisive black comedy.

Promising Young Woman is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

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